Exodus: The Ugly Duckling Commandment

The Tenth Commandment breaks the mold of the other nine.

Moses with the Law, by the French artist Philippe de Champaigne, 1648.

Author’s Note: This posting is a repeat of one I posted on my blog site on October 25, 2017. I repost it here (with some minor editor changes) as part of my discussion of the Book of Exodus. 

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17Deuteronomy 5:6-21) are like the Lord’s Prayer. We recite them so often that we become numb to the words. We mouth them thoughtlessly. 

So it is helpful now and then to slow down our recitation and pay attention to the words. When we do, we find something unexpected in the Ten Commandments.  

The first nine commandments prescribe actions that God’s people are to do or not to do. For example: You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. You shall not kill. You shall not steal.

Even the first commandment–You shall have no other gods before me–implies action. You shall not honor, reverence, or worship any other god before the Lord.

…I call it [the Tenth Commandment] the ugly duckling commandment. It may walk in line with the other ducklings, but it is not a duck.

Then we come to the tenth commandment–You shall not covet.* The sentence structure mirrors that of the previous commandments. But the prohibition is not against an action, but an emotion

The emotion of coveting usually leads to some kind of action, such as an act to deceive and seize another person’s property. The commandment, however, focuses on the motivating emotion that precedes the action, not the action itself.

In this respect, although the tenth commandment parallels the structure of the others, it is a commandment of a totally different kind. That’s why I call it the ugly duckling commandment. It may walk in line with the other ducklings, but it is not a duck.

Why the Difference?

That fact raises a question in my mind. Why is it included in the ten commandments? It makes sense to command actions. We take it for granted that we–to a large degree at least–can control our actions. Our laws presume that fact. Otherwise all our legislation makes no sense. 

But can we presume that for our feelings? I have come to believe that we cannot. I don’t think we can compel people–or even ourselves–to feel in a certain way. 

…it seems odd to me that God is here commanding an emotion, not an action.

Our feelings come and go, without any input from our decision-making will. Sometimes we wonder where those feelings come from. We may not want to feel them. We do our best to suppress them. Yet feelings have an uncanny way of making themselves present in our psyche whether we want to feel them or not. 

So it seems odd to me that God is here commanding an emotion, not an action. Sure, coveting is a terribly destructive emotion. It has caused untold injustice and suffering in the world. We badly need to limit it. And, sure, God is God. His wisdom sometimes exceeds our comprehension.

But how can God command something that goes against the very dynamics of human nature? How can God command what we should feel? That’s the nagging question the tenth commandment raises for me.

The Driver of Human Behavior

Where that question leads me is the many places in the Bible where the heart is seen as the locus of our motivation. In the Biblical viewpoint, what ultimately drives our behavior is not rational reflections, but the motivating desires of our inner being. 

Yes, rational considerations often drive our decisions and the actions that grow out of them. But if rational considerations come into conflict with our desires, desire is likely to win out. For in the Biblical viewpoint the core of the human problem is not our ignorance, but our disordered hearts. Time after time our desires drive us into destructive behavior in spite of our knowing that the course of action we choose to follow is wrong.  

This fundamental insight first came to me with my study of the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. In chapter five of that letter, Paul talks about the battle that is going on constantly between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit. 

The good qualities of character that we so admire–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control–are not products of our will-power, but gifts given to us as we deeply root our lives in the Holy Spirit. They grow as the mature fruit out of a heart transformed by the Spirit.**

When we stop to think more reflectively about it, we realize that behind all the commandments of God concerning our behavior lies the more central issue of the desires of our heart. Our wrong actions grow out of our disordered motivations. And if we would change those actions, then we must ultimately deal with the disordered feelings that lie behind those motivations.

The Viewpoint of Jesus

I think that is the great insight of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He takes the commandments—like the commandment You shall not kill—and realizes that we have not solved the spiritual problem of our behavior until we deal with the feelings that lie behind it. So he directs our attention to the feeling of anger that drives murder. 

Likewise when he comes to the proverbial commandment You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, he directs our attention to that deadly binary cast in our feelings that causes so much civic, ethnic, and international strife and violence. We must deal, Jesus says, with our emotional cast of mind that divides people into friends and enemies. We must grow beyond that dualism if we are to resemble God our Father. 

All this then gives deeper meaning to Jesus’ remark to Nicodemus, You must be born anew (or from above). The experience of being born anew is not primarily some insurance policy against going to eternal damnation. It is an experience of being remade in our inner being, of having our hearts transformed. Instead of the language of born again, the apostle Paul will use the language of new creation (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). And that is the great hope that drives the spiritual journey for Christians. 

So the tenth commandment has a reason for being the ugly duckling in the list of the Ten Commandments. It cautions us against any spiritual complacency, the assumption that we can fulfill God’s expectations by simple obedient action to the law. What is required to fulfill those expectations is something much deeper and more radical than we customarily assume. 


* In calling it the Tenth Commandment, I follow the ordering of the ten commandments in the Reformed (Presbyterian) tradition, the religious tradition in which I live. Although all Jewish and Christian traditions keep to a consistent ten commandments, some number them differently than others. Roman Catholics and Lutherans, for example, split the commandment on coveting into two commandments while merging the first two commandments into one. What I have to say about the commandment on coveting remains true whether we regard it as one or two commandments. 

** I reflect on this insight of Paul at length in my book Charter of Christian Freedom. It is a study guide to the Letter to the Galatians written especially for people with no or a limited theological education. It can be ordered from the website of the publisher Wipf and Stock

The Spiritual Revolution in One Single Word

Bible text: Galatians 5:22-23

When I read the Bible, I like to pay close attention to the text. For example, I try to be alert to the choice of words the Biblical author uses. Sometimes that choice of words can create a revolution in my spiritual understanding.

One passage that did just that several years ago is Galatians 5:22-23:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. (Revised Standard Version)

This verse falls in a passage where the apostle Paul is contrasting life in the Holy Spirit with life in the flesh. In verse 19, he lists a series of vices: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, and carousing. He calls these vices “works” of the flesh.

He contrasts these with what he calls the “fruit” of the Spirit. Now what catches my attention is that he calls these Christian virtues “fruit” of the Spirit, not “works” of the Spirit. I expect him to write “works.” So why does he write “fruit” instead? That was the question I asked myself.

I suspect he used “fruit” instead of “works”, because the word “works” can be misleading. It suggests that these virtues are something we must work hard to acquire or express in our life. It would put the focus on what we do. That in turn would feed scrupulosity or guilt feelings as we try to live out these virtues and fail over and over again. We would make our Christians lives an exhausting affair.

That is how I once read this passage. I felt these virtues were something I had to work hard at acquiring. This feeling was fed mightily by the legalistic spirit of the Christianity in which I was raised. And it produced a fruit of bitterness and indeed exhaustion.

But that is not what Paul is saying. He is not saying these virtues are a result of our hard work. They are the result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. They are the “fruit” or by-product of living a deeply spiritual life.

The apricots on an apricot tree are the end result of the life process of the apricot tree. If the tree is healthy, if it is planted in good soil and fertilized and well watered, it will ultimately produce its apricots as a result of the life forces of the tree rising in the tree and producing its flowers and then its fruit.

If the tree is healthy, it will produce good fruit. If it is diseased, it will produce no fruit or diseased fruit. This is the point that Jesus too makes in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:16-20. Jesus and Paul are at one in their viewpoint.

Now the secret to producing these virtues is not our hard work, our exhausting work to produce these virtues by an act of sheer will power. No, the secret is to root our lives in the Holy Spirit. As we seek to lay down roots in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit will begin to work in our inner lives to transform our motivations, our desires, and our mindsets. And as those motivations, desires, and mindsets change, our behavior will follow.

I read Galatians 5:22-23 in linkage with Psalm 1. There we have the image of a righteous person as a sturdy, mature tree that is well rooted by streams of water. It stands firm in the many storms that life brings. It produces its fruit in due season.

And what is the secret of its stability and fruitfulness? It is that the righteous person roots himself or herself into a daily meditation upon the Torah of God.

Jesus picks up this image of streams of water and sees it as an image of the Holy Spirit (see John 7:37-39).

What Paul would have us do is not work so hard at trying to achieve the virtues of the Christian life. He would have us work hard at rooting ourselves in the Spirit. If we work hard at trying to become more and more open to the Spirit in our lives, the Spirit will transform us.

That transformation may take some time, even a lifetime. But if we are maturing spiritually, we will begin to express the Christian virtues naturally, just as a tree produces its fruit.

When that truth dawned within my consciousness, it turned my religious life upside down. Instead of spending so much energy trying to be good, I found I was called to spend my energy trying to become more open to the Spirit.

And the time-honored way to do that in the Christian tradition is through the practice of what has come to be called the spiritual disciplines. They are many: prayer, especially more contemplative styles of prayer, careful reading and meditation on Scripture (lectio divina), frequent participation in the Eucharist, hospitality, spiritual discernment, fasting, confession, practicing the presence of God, and so on. Even weekly attendance at worship in my church is a spiritual discipline, for we can meet the Spirit of Christ in the communal body of his disciples.

You will find all of these practices and others described in the multitude of books on the spiritual life that we find in bookstores today. These practices, as I have come to practice them, have indeed changed my life in some dramatic ways.

I may be far from perfect in expressing Paul’s fruit of the Spirit in my way of living. But I don’t worry about that much. If I am faithful in working to become open to the Spirit in my life, those virtues will come, just as the apricot comes on the apricot tree.

For the fruit of the Spirit are the by-product of living a spiritual life. They are not that life’s primary focus. “Seek first God’s kingship and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:33). “All these things” includes the virtues of the Christian life as well as the physical and material necessities of life.

This is not to say that the Christian life is a purely passive affair. We just lie back and let God do all the work. Just two verses later in Galatians, Paul will also say, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25).

We have a responsibility to try to live out these virtues as best we can. We try to walk the way we talk. But our actions in essence become a kind of prayer. By our efforts we appeal to God to work that transformation within us where these virtues become natural expressions of who we are and what we are becoming, new creations in Christ.

This understanding emerges from paying close attention to the choice of words that Paul uses. There is indeed a spiritual revolution encapsulated in that one word “fruit” versus “works.”